Steve MenaryWith the Segunda División reaching its climax in Spain, Girona have a good chance of promotion to La Liga that would provide Catalonia with three clubs at the top level of Spanish football for the first time in six seasons.

Ambitious Girona would surely hope to last longer than Gimnàstic de Taragona, whose stay in La Liga in 2006/2007 lasted a year but there could be a bigger threat to the ambitions of Catalonia’s biggest football clubs and that is independence.

Unlike Scotland, no date has been set for any referendum and the Spanish government has banned a declaration of sovereignty approved by more than two thirds of the Catalan assembly. Although Catalans securing independence after nearly 300 years as part of Spain seems unlikely to many in Spain, the increasingly frustrated parties governing Catalonia could declare unilateral independence and stage their own referendum.

Any such declaration would make Catalonia more comparable to Kosovo than Scotland and create problems at international and club level for football, Catalonia’s most popular sport.

Catalonia already has a national team that plays once a year as part of what Phil Ball in Morbo, his excellent history of Spanish football, describes as the Café Con Leche (white coffee for all) deal struck after the death of General Franco.

Under the sporting terms of this agreement, Spain’s 17 regions can field a representative side during La Liga’s Christmas break. Outside the Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia, few regions take up this offer with any great enthusiasm.

Catalonia’s last game was a 1-1 draw with Nigeria on January 2. Some Catalans want more regular games for the ‘national’ side but the cost of persuading the likes of Brazil – 5-2 winners over Catalonia at Camp Nou in 2004 – to play, hiring a ground and other associated costs could easily cost €2 million.

If the Federació Catalana de Futbol (FCF), which is responsible for organising around 1,500 amateur, junior and women’s’ matches every weekend, makes a loss that could have major implications for the thousands of amateur players playing in the region.

So Catalonia’s opponents are usually sides cheap to fly in, like Nigeria, who in January were at a training camp in nearby Lisbon ahead of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Although Nigeria would go on to win the Cup of Nations in South Africa, Catalonia’s last opponents were seen by many fans as a let-down; certainly from the national teams that Jordi Casals anticipated attracting on taking over as FCF president in 2009.

Casals had grand plans, including persuading big teams before World Cups and European Championships to use Barcelona as a base for a pre-tournament training camp. The Catalan capital has impressive sporting facilities – a legacy from the 1992 Olympic Games – and Catalonia would have provided decent opposition on the pitch.

As a statement of intent, Casals recruited Johan Cruyff – a former player and manager at Barca and revered in Catalonia – as national manager but those plans never materialised. Casals fell out with many people at the FCF before standing down and being replaced by Andreu Subies.

On January 2, just 27,234 turned up to Espanyol’s stadium say ‘Comiat’ to Johan Cruyff. That attendance was partly due to the opposition and the game being at Espanyol’s Estadi Cornellà-El Prat rather than Camp Nou – the spiritual home of Catalan football – but also a reflection on Cruyff’s selection policy.

Previously, the Catalan selection featured players from Girona, Gimnàstic and CE Sabadell, a dormitory town outside Barcelona. Cruyff, however, choose players solely from two clubs. Nine came from Barcelona, including Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol and Sergio González, who scored Catalonia’s goal after three minutes. The rest of the team were drawn from Espanyol. That was hardly an inclusive selection for a game that was, after all, one aimed at proving representative of Catalonia.

Barca and Espanyol are the best known Catalan clubs but could face a particularly testing time if Catalonia wins independence and sets up a stand-alone Catalonia league.

What that league might look like was established last year when Plataforma ProSeleccions Esportives Catalanes – a Catalan lobby group that aims to secure international sporting recognition for Catalonia – asked the presidents of a dozen leading Catalan clubs to sign an agreement supporting the idea of an independent Catalonia.

Club Founded Capacity
FC Barcelona 1899 98,787
RCD Espanyol 1900 40,500
Girona FC 1930 9,282
Gimnàstic 1914 17,500
CE Sabadell 1903 12,000
CF Badalona 1903 10,000
UE Llagostera 1947 1,500
Lleida Esportiu CF* 1939 13,500
AE Prat 1945 500
CF Reus Deportiu 1909 4,500
UE Sant Andreu 1925 6,557
L’Hospitalet 1957 6,294
*Lérida Balompié-AEM founded 1939

At a ceremony led by Artur Mas, president of the Catalan parliament, Subies and the presidents of the 11 Catalan clubs, including Sandro Rosell of Barca, Ramon Condal of Espanyol and Girona’s Joaquim Boadas, signed the agreement. Cruyff and Pep Guardiola also sent messages of support but Miguel García, president of CE L’Hospitalet and a Spanish nationalist politician, refused to sign. A putative Catalan league was already down to 11 sides.

Francesc Serra, co-ordinator at Plataforma, which has secured international recognition for Catalonia in minority sports such as darts and Korfball, says: “There is some fear that things might change too much and we might lose the Barca-Real Madrid rivalry. We are telling people of course in the beginning this might be controversial, but after some years of independence it is clear that Catalonia will have what other countries have like Holland.

“Barca have stated they would keep joining the Spanish league, that is a bit clear, but it is not certain what will happen. Of course we will have a Catalan league that is for sure, but in the first years Barca and Espanyol might join this league and the Spanish one, or just the Spanish league. But it does not just depend on that, the Spanish league would have to invite them too.”

An angry split with Spain could prompt the Spanish association, the RFEF, to take a spiteful line and force Barca to play in an independent Catalan league. That would cause uproar amongst the other clubs in La Liga whose crowds are swelled by a visit from Barca’s line-up of superstars. Not only are crowds bigger for a visit by Lionel Messi and company, but ticket prices often go up substantially too, providing a windfall for cash-strapped La Liga clubs.

Espanyol also seem unlikely to give up their place in La Liga, while Boadas reckons that promotion to La Liga could be worth around €23 million to Girona – a sum that no club in the increasingly impoverished Spanish system could pass up. Gimnàstic were relegated from the Segunda División in 2011/12 down to Segunda B and missed out on the play-offs this season. That leaves Centre d’Esports Sabadell as the fourth biggest Catalan club, at least in terms of league placing.

The Estadi de la Nova Creu Alta has a capacity of just 12,000, which was rarely tested in the 2012/13 season with average crowds of 5,000. Under new Japanese owners Sabadell’s focus is on promotion in 2013/14. Japanese youth players are being brought over, senior ones could follow and there are even Manga cartoons in the boardroom.

Álvaro Montoliu Tarragona, Sabadell’s external communications director, says: “I think we are more interested in playing in La Liga, where we could have better players and maybe the opportunity to play in Europe. For the club and people coming to the stadium on a Sunday, they want to see the best players.

“The question is which players are going to play in a Catalan league? Are they going to be professional? Will Messi play in the Catalan league, or prefer to play in the Spanish league? That is the point. Sabadell have played just two games in Europe in our history, against Bruges in the sixties. This is history, but for us to be there again the best way is La Liga.”

Another problem would be a massive discrepancy in size of the clubs. Barca is one of the world’s biggest clubs with a stadium that holds nearly 100,000 people. Segunda B side AE Prat can seat around 500 fans.

Independence for Catalonia looks certain to be a messy business in every sense. With so many Catalan clubs counting themselves out already, an independent top flight in a place so often defined in sporting terms by football could resemble the League of Wales more than a League of Catalonia.

 Steve Menary is the author of Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot.

With forewords by Adrian Chiles and David Conn, Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot examines the much tarnished reputation of FIFA, the governing body of world football, and just how they justify the exclusion of some ‘nations’ while welcoming others – either for reasons of political expediency, or because FIFA just believed they could not compete with the likes of Montserrat on the world stage.

Steve writes regularly about those football nations not recognised by FIFA. You can read more of his writings by visiting his blog.